Million-Year Elegies is a poetry collection by Ada Hoffmann that explores the lives of dinosaurs and other creatures throughout Earth’s history in order to shed light on destruction, evolution, and survival. Though it explores a variety of apocalyptic scenarios, it ultimately is a book about life’s persistence in the face of seemingly long odds.
The book is divided into three sections: “The Age of Monsters,” “The Age of Reptiles,” and “The Age of Mammals.” Each explores the voices and stories of living beings who find themselves facing death and change. Some of these beings die outright; some form symbiotic relationships with others; and some evolve, adapt, and manage to find a way into the future.
The collection opens with a poem called “Prologue: The Late Heavy Bombardment,” which sets the scene for the destruction that follows:
When the stars aligned, they came for us.
The massive bones of other worlds
shook free into our path.
This poem, however, also points toward the possibility of resilience and survival, even in the midst of this apocalypse:
There were those of us, single-celled and small as we were,
who found purchase on rock islands. We clustered
hanging on by our membranes. We were young.
We saw no sunlight.
This tale of trying to find purchase in the swirl of apocalypse—and sometimes, in some small measure, succeeding—is a foundational tale for this collection, one that repeats in infinite variations for all creatures on the planet.
The first section, “The Age of Monsters,” focuses on the planet’s earliest lifeforms. These “monsters” tell stories both of coming to life and losing it. Their planet is a raw, difficult one, shaped by violence and unpredictability, even as it offers them an uneasy home. Here’s the point of view in “Francevillian Biota,” for instance:
We were small, soft cells
beneath a placid lake.
We grew in mats,
each lying cuddled to the next.
Like all the creatures in the collection, the Francevillian Biota find themselves in a world where their chance of survival depends on their ability to adapt to an environment and make it their own. In this case, their world’s conditions “seemed a birthright,” perfectly suited to their needs, and they—at least in this moment—flourish: “We drew together in mountainous chorusing forms.”
In “Cloudina,” we hear another story of adaptation, one that involves picking up the pieces of a broken world and making a home out of them:
We were the first, my sisters and I,
to wrap the bones of the world around us
as a shield.
Sometimes, too, the survival of one species can mean the end of others:
I have plans.
There will be a thousand of me
made from the blind-clawed grabbings of you,
and with all our perforations, we remain.
This planet might be a home, but it’s not one that coddles life, and living can come at a price. Variations of this story abound in the collection, with the pendulum of life and death, survival and destruction, swinging constantly back and forth.
The section entitled “The Age of Reptiles” explores similar themes, with each poem highlighting specific characteristics, experiences, and life stories of dinosaurs and those species who lived alongside them. Some of these poems are told from the perspective of the creatures themselves, and others are told from outside points of view—including present-day humans. Like earlier lifeforms, the creatures of this age encounter violence and trauma, and they must find a foothold in a constantly-changing world, even as they face the always-there threat of doom.
Like others that came before, the creatures speaking in “Proterosuchus” rise from the ashes of previous apocalypses, when “The world was burned, dead, and rotten, / again”:
Nothing much lived: nothing you
would call interesting.
Just teeth. Just hungry throats.
These creatures are here speaking to a plural “you” that encompasses all of us humans, creatures in the future who will look back into a murky past and try to reconstruct dinosaurs. The poem’s particular dinosaur, though perhaps not one of the more “interesting” ones, is a survivor with a tale to tell—a tale of teeth and hunger, and perhaps a tale of warning. Being a dinosaur, Proterosuchus says, is not pretty, not to be sentimentalized. As with all other life, Proterosuchus does what it can to get to the next day, and hopefully the next.
“Stegosaurus,” too, has a sobering story to tell about what it means to scratch out a living on Earth. In this poem, Stegosaurus speaks to a predator that it manages, for the moment, to evade:
We must eat one another or die.
It is, you say, a love story.
For who does a monster love more than his prey?
Surviving, in this case, means not giving in to the siren song of a predator, but finding one’s own path out of danger:
[M]y hips have always known where to go.
They carry me over the water,
through two-foot tripping silt and spray
where you cannot follow.
Meanwhile, the one who hunts is left wailing on the shore:
You gnash your teeth on the shoreline,
calling for the food
that no longer loves you.
It’s a story of a kind of unrequited “love,” one which ends with Stegosaurus loving life more than death, and using its not-so-stupid “walnut-head” to outsmart at least this small apocalypse, if not the larger one that looms in the future.
The collection’s last section, “The Age of Mammals,” looks at those creatures who emerge, small and furry and scurrying, from the smoldering ruins of dinosaurs. One of these, described in the poem, “Plesiadapis,” is a proto-primate, a long-lost cousin of humans:
Somehow in between
that burned-out ferny beginning
and the rising of the pyramids,
you became us.
Embedded in this tiny, non-threatening form, then, there’s a story of creatures who could bring about a future apocalypse: human beings themselves. The poem telegraphs this warning with its ending:
Tell us, where in our lineage
is the turning point: the first monkey
or ape, or little bushy-tailed thing,
who was large enough to look at the world
One of the themes explored in this collection is the repetition of cycles, particularly beginnings and endings, birth and death, origin and apocalypse. And underneath this repetition is the modern-day apocalypse threatening Earth: human-caused environmental destruction and climate change. Little Plesiadapsis might not be directly responsible for this coming apocalypse, but the “bushy-tailed thing” perhaps contains the seeds of that future ending.
Like some of the earlier poems in the collection, the mammal poems describe a fight for survival. All manner of mammals and the other species that thrive during their era look for footholds, including “Hipparion,” who tells us
The world opened up before me.
And I ran.
And I ran.
In “Phorusrhacos,” we hear about a bird who evolves beyond pretty “songbird sisters” into a carnivorous, flightless terror bird:
You swallowed rabbits whole. Your songbird sisters
lit on the branches before you, chirped greeting.
Everything had changed its shape, even the pushed-high land
you stood on, even you.
The demands of a changing planet give birth to new lifeforms that prey on each other in new and ever-more-terrifying ways.
The last poem of this section, “Ursus,” tells the story of bears—mother bears who would do anything to protect their young from threats, including the threat of male bears who want to kill her cubs. Those cubs grow up, in turn, to become adult bears who repeat the patterns of their elders, even as they’re haunted by the terrors of their youth:
Know this, child, as you bow before
the bear. We are none of us free.
You can grow to be strong. You can scheme.
You can kill. It will not stop the thing you fear.
The bears, in this poem, become us—creatures who want both to protect and kill their own kind:
We are so large now, so strong.
But we have never forgotten our monsters.
The collection ends with a poem called “Epilogue: Memento Mori,” which brings it firmly into the present, offering the voice of a modern, human speaker reflecting on what these tales of destruction and survival have to say about the world in which we find ourselves today:
One day I woke up and the hands at the throat of the Earth
were my own.
A sense of impending doom and guilt hangs over this final poem, with the speaker burdened by the cycles of apocalypse in which we find ourselves enmeshed. At the same time, the poem offers a glimmer of hope for the present, if not the future:
Then I rose. Dried my tears. Baked bread. Ate fruit.
Wrapped my arms around my lover.
Dug into the dirt with my hands and let the stardust,
eaten and shat by a million billion lives,
fall through my fingers.
Maybe there’s nothing left to do at the end, after all, besides be in the moment, and affirm the life right in front of us: the garden, the bread, the fruit, the lover. Someday, the bones even of this speaker will be unEarthed, and stories will be told about that creature’s life and death:
When they pry my bones from the rock,
they will not know if I was good or bad,
wise or foolish, only that I lived,
and they will make of that what they will.
It’s a grim hope offered by this final poem, but a hope nonetheless. Something will survive from the present, even if it’s nothing more than bones in a rock. And someone—or something—will likely be there to exhume them and at least try to reconstruct what might have happened.